Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 3.1-17

Holy Trinity - Year B
1st Sunday after Pentecost

Other texts:

2nd Sunday in Lent A

Other texts:


Note that John 3 appears often in the RCL

Between now and Pentecost, there are 13 readings from the Gospel of John, (including Maundy Thursday and Good Friday). I like the following description of this gospel: "Shallow enough for a child to wade in and deep enough to drown an elephant." It is often the gospel given to new converts to read and they find life in its words and symbols. It is a book that continues to confound scholars about all the nuances of its meanings and symbols (see Kysar, The Fourth Evangelist and His Gospel, p. 6). Hopefully, we can all drink from its waters and find life. In this note, there are some themes that reappear throughout this gospel.

While nearly all Christians know John 3:16, how many are aware that it is part of Jesus' discourse with Nicodemus? Some interpreters end Jesus' speech with v. 15 (e.g., NAB), and present vv. 16-21 as comments by the narrator, most others extend Jesus' speech to v. 21 (although note the footnote in NRSV). The difficulty in outline these verses is also indicated by the different sets of verses used in the RCL as listed above.

Craddock (Preaching Through the Christian Year A) introduces this text with: "In John 3:1-17, the church overhears Jesus tell a religious leader that the life abundant and eternal is a gift from above and is not attained by achievement, claim, or proof. Nothing could be more appropriate for Lent than a reminder that prayer and fasting do not earn anything" (p. 159).

Usually when I have taught this text, especially the "born again" verses, I stress the need for us to take it more seriously than many of the "born again" people. I'll start with a detailed study of the phrase gennethe anothen (= "born from above"), then offer briefer comments about other aspects of this text.

ANOTHEN -- FROM ABOVE / AGAIN

anothen -- Should it be translated "from above" (NRSV*, NAB, NJB, CEV*) or "again" or "anew" (RSV*, NEB, NIV*, TEV*)? [Those marked with * include the other translation in a footnote.] I believe that Jesus intended "from above," but, as is typical in John, Nicodemus understands it to be a literal "again".

The prefix ana (adverbial form: ano) generally means "up". As in anabaino = "to go up" in contrast to katabaino - "to go down". The adverb ano is used thrice in John all in reference to something "up".

2:7 -- They filled the jars with water to the top.
8:23 -- "You are from below [ek ton kato],
         I am from above [ek ton ano].
   
     You are from this world,
        I am not from this world [ek tou kosmou].
11:41 -- Jesus raised his eyes up and said.

The suffix -then generally means "(motion) from (a place)". It is used in pothen in v. 8. pou- = where? + -then = from -- "You do not know from where the Spirit comes."

So, most literally, anothen means "from up". Besides its use in our text (vv. 3 & 7), it always has the sense "from up" in John.

3:31 -- The one coming from above is above [epano] all; the one being from the earth is from the earth and speaks from the earth. The one coming from heaven is above [epano] all.
19:11 -- You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.
19:23 -- The garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.

In English we have the phrase "from the top" which can mean "start from the beginning" or "do over". So anothen can mean, "again" or "anew," but that isn't its primary meaning.

I think that as other terms are misunderstood in John, Jesus meant "from above" (= from God) and Nicodemus took it as "again" (= a second time). Craddock (Preaching Through the Christian Year A) notes this and then writes: "It is striking that the popularization of this expression has accepted Nicodemus' misunderstanding (born again) rather than Jesus' word" (p. 160).

GENNAO = "give birth" (of females); "beget," "become a father of" (of males)

All the references to gennao ("give birth") in ch. 3 are passive (vv. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). "to be born" or "having been born". It is often helpful to try and change passive verbs into active ones. (In fact, my grammar check dislikes passive verbs.)

For those who may not remember their English grammar, passive verbs use forms of "to be" as helping verbs. For example, the active sentence, Jack built a house, can be turned into a passive sentence, A house was built by Jack. With active verbs the roles are clear, "actor acts on an object." With passive verbs, "the object is acted upon (by the actor)."

For instance, the passive, "Jesus was born of Mary" can be rephrased with an active verb: "Mary gave birth to Jesus." Even though the order is changed, in both sentences, Mary is the "actor," giving birth is the "act," and Jesus is the "object".

However, with passive verbs, the actor may not be named. For instance, one could say, "The house was built." The builder/actor is not named. It may have been Jack or it could have been Jill. (Hopefully the context would make it clear who built it.) The passive phrase in our text, "You must be born again," indicates that "you" is the "object" of the actions; "giving birth/begetting" is the "act," but the "actor" is not named.

gennao is used in John 1:12-13 where the "actor" is clearly defined: "Whoever received him [the Word who was in the world], he gave to them the right to become children of God, to those who believed in his name, who not from blood nor from desires of the flesh nor from desires of a man, but from God they were born." The last clause is passive. It can be easily turned into an active sentence: "God gave birth to them"; or "God begot them" or "God became their father (/mother)". In either case, God is the "actor," giving birth/begetting is the "act," and they (or we) are the "objects" of the actions.

This lengthy lesson in grammar indicates that being born from above is not something we do. It is something done to us (by God). In a similar way, being born the first time was not something we did. Our physical births were caused by powers far beyond our infantile abilities and understanding. Being born is something that happens to us from powers outside of ourselves. We have to take that image seriously more seriously than many of the so-called "born-again" people. My complaint with some of the "born again" emphasis is that it often becomes something we do. Both the grammar and the imagery of birth indicate that it is something God (the one "from above") does to or for us.

BIRTH AS STATUS

Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh write about the importance of birth in Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John.

It is critical to recognize that the topic here is birth. Birth status was the single, all-important factor in determining a person's honor rating. Ascribed honor, the honor derived from one's status at birth, was simply a given. It usually stayed with a person for life. ... To be born over again, born for a second time (one meaning of anothen), however unthinkable that event might be, would alter one's ascribed honor status in a very fundamental way. A new ascribed honor status would derive from a new birth.

Thus, a second birth, especially if it differed substantially in honor level from the first birth, would be a life-changing event of staggering proportions. [p. 82]

Then they comment specifically about the transformation indicated in our text:

To be born "from above" -- that is, to be born of the sky, of the realm of God -- is to belong to that realm, to become a veritable child of God. This, of course, is to acquire an honor status of the very highest sort. ... Thus, whatever honor status a person might have in Israelite society, being born "from above" would re-create that person at a whole new level. In addition, since all children of the same father share that father's honor status, differences in status among "the children of God" obviously disappear, except for the firstborn. [p. 82]

NICODEMUS AS SYMBOL

Craig R. Koester (Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community) takes Nicodemus as a symbolic and representative figure. Note that although Nicodemus seemingly comes alone, he speaks for others: "We know."

Similarly, Jesus suddenly changes from "I" and (singular) "you" to "we" and (plural) "you" in vv. 11-12. John presents this as more than just a conversation between two people.

Nicodemus may represent: (1) The Pharisees -- the upright, law-abiding, obedient, religious Jews. (2) Those who believe in Jesus because of the signs he performed. (3) All humanity (anthropos of vv. 1, 4, 19 -- it is also used twice in the verse just before our text -- 2:25): "[Jesus] had no need for anyone to testify about humanity, for he, himself, knew what was in humanity." Through Nicodemus we can also learn a little about what is in humanity.

DARKNESS (NIGHT) AND LIGHT DICHOTOMY

While I have often assumed that Nicodemus came "at night" (v. 2) because of fear (compare 19:38-39), Koester suggests that "at night" is a symbol of darkness -- a symbol picked up later in the text (but not part of our lesson -- vv. 19-21). If Nicodemus represents humanity -- the world in darkness, then does his coming to Jesus indicate his coming to the light, or does his ignorance and misunderstanding keep him "in the dark" about Jesus? In neither of the other references to Nicodemus is he called a believer or disciple (7:50; 19:39 -- where he helps Joseph of Arimathea, "who was a disciple of Jesus," prepare Jesus' body for burial.)

Either way, his "darkness" is unsettling. He was a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews, so we must assume that he lived a moral life, obedient to the Mosaic Law. There is no reason to think that he was guilty of the crimes that are more likely to be associated with darkness: murder, theft, adultery, etc. 2 Esdras 14:20-22 describes the law as the light that illuminates the right path in the dark world. However, if Nicodemus is a "law-abiding" Pharisaic Jew, then "darkness" is no longer defined by disobeying the Law. If Nicodemus represents "every person," then what is true for him is true for all people. Being in light or darkness is revealed by one's response to Jesus, not one's morality. (Although being in a right relationship to Jesus will result in God-pleasing acts -- 3:21.) Perhaps what Nicodemus teaches us about humanity is that even the most moral people can still be in the dark in their relationship with Jesus.

KINGDOM OF GOD

The phrase "kingdom of God" only occurs in John 3:5 & 7. "Kingdom" also occurs twice in 18:36 where Jesus states: "My kingdom is not of this world [ek tou kosmou]. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place [enteuthen]."

In our text, the kingdom is something one is able "to see" and "to enter", which can lead to the mistaken notion of "kingdom" as a place, rather than God's power. Those enlightened by Jesus are able to "see" God's power in their lives and in the world. They realize and believe that they are living in and by the power of God -- something that those in the dark can't see.

THE PLACE WHERE ONE IS FROM

One of the themes of John is one's origins. I've already mentioned the suffix -then as meaning "from" -- a meaning repeated in the verse quoted above about the kingdom "from another place". The participle ek can have the same meaning, like in the verse quoted above. The origins of Jesus' kingdom do not come from or out of this world. It does not have this world as its source.

This is the question Pilate asks Jesus in 19:9: "Where do you come from?" The "origins" of Jesus is a theme throughout the gospel. From chapter 1, we, the readers know that Jesus -- the Word -- was with God and was God. Jesus came from God. That is the true confession of faith for John. In contrast, we have Nathanael stating, "From [ek] Nazareth, is anything good able to come?" Three other times questions about Jesus' place of origin are asked: 7:27-28; 8:14; and 9:29-30 (all using pothen).

The second time Nicodemus appears (7:50), this issue is raised by others, "Search and you will see that from [ek] Galilee a prophet does not arise" (7:52).

Where does Jesus come from? On one hand, the obvious, shallow answer is from Nazareth in Galilee, but that is not sufficient. For John, the deeper answer of faith is, "from God" or "the one who has descended from (ek) heaven" (3:13) or "from above" (3:31 -- both anothen and ek are used). [NOTE: When Nicodemus says that Jesus is a teacher having come from God (3:2), it is the Greek word apo, not ek, that is used.]

I think similarly, the answer to "Where do disciples come from?" may have two answers. One obvious, but shallow and insufficient answer is "Those who come to Jesus (like Nicodemus did). The deeper answer of faith is, "from above" (anothen) and "from (ek) water and spirit". Or, perhaps another way of phrasing these answers: "I decided to follow Jesus," is the shallow and insufficient answer; whereas "God chose, claimed, and made me a child of God," is a more accurate rendering of "having been born from above."

Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) build on the idea that one cannot usually aspire to a higher (social) level than where one is born. Jesus is able to return to God because that's where he is from. However, those who have been "born from above," are also able to return there, because that's where we are now from.

Jesus' says to Nicodemus: "The wind/spirit blows where it wishes. You (singular) hear its sound but you don't know from where it is coming and where it is going. This it is with everyone who has been born from the Spirit."

Malina and Rohrbaugh give this brief commentary: "How the new Spirit-birth happens is not specified. It is simply said to be as mysterious as the wind was to ancient people" [p. 84].

Beyond the mysteriousness of the wind/Spirit, could Jesus be implying that Nicodemus, because he is still in the dark -- not yet enlightened by Jesus -- is unable to comprehend the origins of the wind/spirit or of true believers? Both come from God. I'm afraid that as long as people consider Christianity as something we do -- living obedient moral lives, coming to Jesus, making a decision to follow Jesus -- they will be in the dark about the true origins of our faith and also our deeds, which are to be done "in God" (3:21).

As long as people consider Christianity as something we do, are they not trying to control the Spirit -- telling it where and where to blow?

THE SYMBOL OF WATER

Water is a major symbol in the opening chapters of John.

I think that the "water" in 3:5 needs to be read within this wider symbolism of water. Prior to this instance, water is connected with ritual washing (either John's baptism, or the jars that Jesus used). A discussion about purification rites comes soon after our text (3:25).

The water in the purification jars is transformed by Jesus into wine. Immediately following this "sign," Jesus enters the temple and drives out the animal sellers and moneychangers. Jesus indicates that the human-constructed temple will be replaced by the temple of his own body (after three days) (2:21). The Jewish rituals of purification are replaced and transformed by Jesus.

Then comes our text where that which comes from (ek) the flesh, needs to be transformed into that which comes from (ek) the Spirit. Our human acts of purification (even John's baptism) are no longer sufficient. We need the transforming work that comes "from above," either coming from Jesus or from the Spirit.

Christian baptism with water and Spirit (as opposed to John's water baptism) is the act where God does the transforming in our lives. Baptism as an act of God for us -- both with water at our baptisms and with daily dying and being raised through our repentance -- keeps our lives properly oriented -- as having come from God.

POLE-ISH THEOLOGY

This imagery refers to Numbers 21:9. There we know the problem and solution:

In John, we are given the solution = the Son of man on a pole who brings life

Since the phrase "son of man" is also a Hebrew idiom for "a human being," we can make a parallel analogy with Numbers

Lucy once said to Charlie Brown, "Discouraged again, eh, Charlie Brown?" "You know what your whole trouble is? The whole trouble with you is that you're you!"

Charlie asks, "Well, what in the world can I do about that?"

Lucy answers, "I don't pretend to be able to give advice...I merely point out the trouble!"

The symbol of Jesus on a pole indicates that the problem with us is us -- and that Jesus is the solution.

It may also be that "lifting up" Jesus could also be a spatial comment about that which is "above." He is, in a sense, separated from the earth with his being "lifted up."

ETERNAL LIFE

John 3:15 is the first time "eternal life" is used in the gospel. Every time the phrase is used in John, it is with a present tense verb -- usually "have". It is something believers have now, and perhaps should be translated "unending life". It begins now and lasts forever. Just what is "eternal life"? O'Day in the New Interpreter's Bible writes:

"Eternal life" is one of the dominant metaphors in the Fourth Gospel to describe the change in human existence wrought by faith in Jesus (e.g., 3:36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:27; 17:4). To have eternal life is to live life no longer defined by blood or by the will of the flesh or by human will, but by God (cf. 1:13). "Eternal" does not mean mere endless duration of human existence, but is a way of describing life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God. To speak of the newness available to the believer as "eternal life" shifts eschatological expectations to the present. Eternal life is not something held in abeyance until the believer's future, but begins in the believer's present. [p. 552]

LOVE

With the familiarity of John 3:16 and our varied uses of "love," we probably don't grasp the significance of that word in John or in this verse. Malina and Rohrbaugh writing about "love" and "hate" in John.

Two words nearly always assigned to internal states in our society are love and hate. To understand what they meant in the first-century Mediterranean world, however, it is necessary to recognize both their group orientation and their corresponding external expression. The term love, for example, is best translated "group attachment," or "attachment to some person." ... There may or may not be affection, but it is the inward feeling of attachment, along with the outward behavior bound up with such attachment, that love entails....

Correspondingly, hate would mean "disattachment," "nonattachment," or "indifference." ... [p. 87]

Given this understanding, God's love means attaching himself to the world. God sent his Son. The Word became flesh. Love is not necessarily an inward emotion, but outward actions -- a theme that reoccurs throughout this gospel.


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com